A large part of why I chose to study abroad in India was to work with marginalized populations effected by poverty, lack of education, and the caste system. The caste system, although not legal in India, is still a very common social practice. Traditionally divided into four main castes, the lowest caste is referred to as the Dalits or even worse, the “untouchables” comprising over half of India’s 1.3 billion people. You are born into it, no factors can change it.Because of this, many of these children (and adults) are denied education and basic human rights, thus perpetuating this cruel system of worth of lack there of.
The Center for Social Action (CSA) in Bangalore is trying to change this. It is a student run initiative to promote educational equity and social justice, specifically in neighboring slums where caste and circumstance too often limit access to a better life. I visited CSA’s Slum Center, a community building used for tutoring as well as a safe supervised environment. The center runs from after school until 6:00pm, with approximately 80 children. The participating students are by requirement, all members of the lowest caste A $75 sponsorship, covers tuition, transportation, uniforms, books, the CSA center access, and lunch at school. (A chance at a real, healthy, prosperous life, for less than the average American spends on cable TV each month, I am still nauseous thinking about it.)
When I first got to the center I was both shocked and amazed. It was in fact, a small, narrow building, which one had to climb over broken concrete stairs, past the two floors currently unsafe for use, and to the top floor- 80 children in a room designed for 20. But it didn’t matter, eager children overflowed out of the desks onto the floor, pressing their homework against the walls or their own legs as a writing surface. No matter the stifling humidity, or crowded quarters, these kids were thriving.
One boy in particular caught my attention. He just sat smiling and repeating his English spelling work. Shy but enthusiastic to recite to me, he softly spoke B-O-O-K-S, books, then S-E-V-E-R-A-L several. At age 9 he said he dreams of being a doctor, and with his work ethic and CSA, I bet he will be.
Some 9th grade girls asked me to come over and sit on the stairs with them as they studied and started to paint a bindhi on my forehead. They wanted to teach me a dance so we went to the roof and they began to teach me the most fun Bollywood dance ever! I had so much fun, we all just laughed and laughed the more I learned (or messed up). I had such a great time. As always, I am so thankful for the Indian children for allowing me to learn from them about true happiness and perseverance.